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This just in from the department of lexicography…
Anyone who owns or runs a website is familiar with the tide of unsolicited emails from would-be web designers and SEO “experts” who want to sell their services. One such email arrived in my inbox last week. But it had an unusual message.
The sender’s services, the email’s author wrote, would help me to correct myriad spelling errors on my site. And they provided an example of an egregious orthographic error on my site — the word somm.
It struck me as odd because as a rule, the word sommelier always appears in its unabridged form on my blog.
Curiosity killed the cat. Is somm not considered an acceptable rendering? The urge to look up the entry for the lemma in the Oxford English Dictionary was too much to bear (btw look for the OED “draft addition” entry for lemma and you will find the acceptation used here).
The first thing that struck me is that somm is not included as an accepted abbreviation or alternate spelling.
At this point, somm the truncated form has nearly eclipsed the use of sommelier. And especially after the release of the “Somm” films, it has prevailed in winespeak, both professional and laical.
It has also been verbified or denominalized, depending on how you like your grammar.
Tonight Andres will be somming is understood in professional circles to denote that tonight Andres will be working as a sommelier on the floor of the restaurant. (That’s Andres Blanco in the photo above btw).
It’s surprising that the OED hasn’t yet included a definition for to somm.
It’s also dumbfounding to note that the last example reported by the editors is dated 1974. If you’re, say, 30 years old and working as a sommelier, you weren’t even born when the London Times reported that “an awe-inspiringly stately sommelier and long wine lists… can often discourage the sale of wine” (see above).
Wow, how the world of wine has changed since the year when the U.S. had two presidents in the same term (Nixon and Ford)! It’s also the year that the Stones released “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.” Just think what the wine world was like back then and who populated it.
It’s also no short of nonplussing that the only bona fide meaning the editors give is “wine waiter.” Today, the sommelier is so much more than just an arbiter of good wine and keeper of the cellar. Modern-day sommeliers are hosts, educators, tastemakers, entertainers, performers, human resources managers, entrepreneurs, authors, and even activists. Some would go as far to call the work of a sommelier “art.” None of this spirit is present in the OED entry.
But the thing that made the deepest impression on me is that in all the usage examples offered by the OED editors, each one includes a hint of negativity, a note of condescension, or, at worst, a downright insult to the sommelier profession.
The sommelier is actually a “butler.”
The sommelier jumps at the snap of fingers to fetch a cocktail.
The “fastidious wine-bibber” terrorizes the sommelier.
Standards are high even though there are “some cooks to shoot and many sommeliers to educate.”
And the irony in the “stately sommelier” who “discourages” wine sales is hard not to suppress.
Isn’t it time for the editors to reimagine the definition?
Once we get that taken care of, we can start working on an update of their entry for puttanesca.
Such is the fate of hapless lexicography that not only darkness, but light, impedes and distresses it; things may be not only too little, but too much known, to be happily illustrated.